Somehow, crazily, the biggest question mark for the 2015 Texas Longhorns baseball team might be their pitching. That isn't to suggest Skip Johnson's boys are inherently a weakness; rather calling this group a question mark is an appreciation for the arms on the 40 Acres in 2014. Gone are Nathan Thornhill, John Curtiss, Dillon Peters and Lukas Schiraldi. Off to pro ball. Also gone (under the knife) is freshman phenom Morgan Cooper though he hopefully will get another shot in 2016. All told Texas will have to replace over 350 innings that went 29-14 in 2014.
Texas clearly has the talent to replace its departed players, but there's a difference between having the talent and turning that talent into production. The success or failure of the 2015 Longhorns may hinge on that difference.
Parker French is back and it's tough to understate how big his return is. The senior's last three postseason starts on full rest (discounting the Vandy game) were just magnificent (20 IP, 15 H, 3 ER). There is rumor that French could move to the closer spot but I'd take100 innings of his trustworthiness as a starter over 40 innings at the closer position. There may be an alternate universe where Morgan Cooper is healthy and French closes, but our current universe probably features French starting on Fridays. Skip Johnson's rotation for Rice indicates French will start Friday although the weekend rotation for the first weekend won't inherently be the rotation in June.
Had he not pitched in the postseason in 2014 you probably would have penciled Chad Hollingsworth in as a 2015 starter anyway. You'd say he had a solid freshman campaign where he got some good experience starting and was a good bullpen option on a deep club in 2014. Of course Hollingsworth made two postseason starts and they were about as good as any Texas pitcher has ever had. If Hollingsworth pitches like those two starts then he's the greatest pitcher of all time. If he can be consistently solid while occasionally mimicking his pure dominance of Texas A&M every once in a while then he'll be a great starting pitching option.
Travis Duke is a soft-tossing lefty with a funky delivery. All he has done in two years with Texas baseball is throw a combined 66 innings over 56 appearances while giving up 7 earned runs (ERA of 0.95). Duke has struck out 52 while walking 20 and has given up only 6 extra base hits (all doubles). Duke also earned the save in two of the Horns' wins in Omaha. Would his repertoire play well if opponents had two or three cracks at it? Maybe not. But Duke could be invaluable as a closer or long reliever.
Ty Culbreth joins Travis Duke in the Accomplished Relievers category. Culbreth, a junior, pitched solidly in relief during his sophomore campaign although he only saw one appearance in the postseason (0.2 IP against TAMU).
Texas has four pitchers it should be able to count on every weekend to perform. But the Horns will need big production from at least two of the following guys if it is going to have a chance at making it back to Omaha in June.
Josh Sawyer - If you're looking for a guy to take a leap from year one to year two then Sawyer is probably your guy. The sophomore only saw action in 7 forgettable games last season and he only pitched in one game that wasn't a blowout (an embarrassing 2-1 midweek extra innings win over UTPA). Sawyer only pitched once in conference play where he was solid in a blowout loss at West Virginia. The talent is there though and it's that talent that has Sawyer projected as one of the weekend starters. Sawyer will start against Rice in one of the Saturday doubleheader games.
Kyle Johnston - There's no Taylor Jungmann on this roster though Johnston is the surest bet to come in and contribute as a freshman. Johnston doesn't have Jungmann's build (he's 6'0") but he may need to have as big impact an as a freshman in order for the Horns to make it to Omaha. Johnston was a reliever as a junior and a starter as a senior where he threw a perfect game. If French starts then Johnston may start the year as the closer or midweek starter. If French closes then the weekend rotation to start the year is probably Hollingsworth, Johnston, Sawyer.
Kacy Clemens, Blake Goins, Jon Malmin, Parker Joe Robinson & Tyler Schimpf, Connor Mayes - The depth of the Texas pitching staff will be determined by these six guys. These three sophomores and three freshmen will pitch in the majority of midweek games and Texas needs a few of these guys to emerge as reliable arms if they're going to make it to Omaha. For all of the talent that the 2014 Texas squad had in its front line arms, it was the work of Chad Hollingsworth that put the Horns over the top. The next Hollingsworth is in this group. Clemens will get the first shot as a starter on Saturday against Rice. If Clemens performs well he could be a solid weekend starter. Clemens pitching also gives broadcasters something to talk about if/when Texas makes it to Omaha.
The best case scenario for this group has French improving on his very solid 2014 campaign and giving Texas a quality start every Friday night. Texas uses the first two weekends with four games each to find a Saturday and Sunday starter from the group of Kyle Johnston, Josh Sawyer and Chad Hollingsworth. The odd man out either starts midweek games or moves to a prominent bullpen role. Texas' bullpen depth becomes a serious asset and all of the pitching worries disappear. Kyler Murray goes pro.
The worst case scenario has French roughly mimicking his work from 2014 while Johnston, Sawyer and Hollingsworth struggle to adjust to their roles. Texas enters conference play with talent but lots of questions and has to figure out its rotation and bullpen on the fly.
Should be a fun group to watch grow either way.